The ghost of Tom Joad treads the boards at SUNY-Ulster

Duncan Crowley as Tom Joad

Duncan Crowley as Tom Joad

John Steinbeck’s masterwork The Grapes of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, winning its author a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award and weighing heavily toward his being awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. The grim-but-uplifting tale of the Joads, an Oklahoma farming family struggling to make a new start in California during the Great Depression, is a classic by any measure, worth reading in any decade. But its social message takes on added significance during tough economic times; and considering that the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a short-term manifestation of the sort of cataclysmic harm that can be wrought by climate change, contemporary readers may take it as an environmentalist cautionary tale as well.

Most people think of The Grapes of Wrath as primarily a novel, and secondarily as the 1940 John Ford movie version starring Henry Fonda (Steven Spielberg is planning a remake). Woody Guthrie was inspired by the novel to write the song “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” and more recently Bruce Springsteen made an album called The Ghost of Tom Joad.

But what few of us realize is that this epic story was also adapted for the stage in the 1980s, by Frank Galati of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The show ran for 188 performances on Broadway in 1990, starring Gary Sinise and winning both Tony and Outer Critics’ Circle Awards.

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That adaptation will be revived for two weeks this month by the SUNY-Ulster Theatre Program with a student cast under the direction of Stephen Balantzian. Opening on Thursday, April 17 and running through Sunday, April 27, performances will be held in the Quimby Theater on the SUNY-Ulster campus in Stone Ridge, beginning at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with one 3 p.m. Sunday matinée on April 27 (no performance on Easter Sunday, April 20). Admission at the door costs a “suggested donation” of $10, and is free for students.

The Grapes of Wrath, Thursday-Saturday, April 17-19, 24-26, 8 p.m., Sunday, April 27, 3 p.m., $10, Quimby Theater, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-5263, https://apps.sunyulster.edu/announcements/1741.

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